Protecting Marieby Kevin Henkes
Relates twelve-year-old Fanny's love-hate relationship with her father, a temperamental artist, who has given Fanny a new dog.
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Fanny Swann popped the only red balloon, pretending that it was her father's heart. And then, within a matter of minutes, her anger dissolved into tears. After slapping at the remaining balloons, Fanny turned toward her mother, wrapping herself around her, burying her face in her mother's fancy dress.
"It's because of me," Fanny said between sniffles. "I know it's because of me."
"It's not because of you," Ellen Cross told her daughter. "Don't think that for another second." Ellen stroked Fanny's hair, pulling her fingers through it like a comb.
"I'm messing your dress," Fanny said, stepping away from her mother and wiping her nose on her sleeve.
"Don't worry about my dress."
"When will he come back?" Fanny asked, almost whispering. She looked at her mother up and down while she waited for an answer.
Usually her mother's long, thick, gray-streaked hair was drawn back into a ponytail that always managed to spill over her right shoulder and curve toward her neck. That night, Ellen's hair was twisted with a tinsel garland and small red berries into an elegant bun.
"Does it look stupid? Does it look like a Danish pastry?" Ellen had asked Fanny as she worked on her hair in the bathroom only hours earlier.
"It looks beautiful," Fanny had responded, her eyes frozen on her mother, mesmerized by her mother's ability to create extraordinary effects out of things that were nothing very special on their own. The tinsel garland was just a scrap that had been lying on the stairs; the berries were froma scraggly bush in the backyard.
Ellen's dress was satin. It was bloodred with flecks of yellow and green worked into the fabric here and there. The blending of the colors reminded Fanny of an apple turning. Her shoes were red also, with straps that buckled and heels that clicked on the bathroom floor.
"You look gorgeous," Fanny had said somewhat wistfully, as though she knew her mother's beauty could rub off on her daughter only by magic. Something Fanny did not believe in, except in books. "And you smell nice, too. What is it?"
"Oh, I'm not really sure. A little of this, a little of that."
"And add that to your already fragrant body odor," Fanny had joked, "and there you are -- a masterpiece."
"You are the masterpiece. You are the perfect one."
"Right," Fanny had said sarcastically, jumping up to plant a kiss on her mother's cheek.
Catching glimpses of herself in the bathroom mirror as she watched her mother confirmed it all over again. Fanny looked a lot like her father. She often wondered why she had to resemble her father so strongly. Why not her mother? Fanny's features were her father's. They looked fine on him -- a sixty-year-old man. They didn't on her -- a twelve-year-old girl. Funny how a long nose with a bump, deep-set eyes, and a thickly furrowed brow can take on dramatically different qualities depending on whose face they happen to be part of.
Many of Fanny's parents' friends thought she was attractive. "You have a lovely Grecian profile," they'd comment. "Your eyes are so expressive, dear," they'd say. "You look pretty tonight, Fanny," they'd add. But all their flattery seemed false to Fanny. What did they know anyway? Many of her parents' friends were over fifty.
At school, Fanny felt extremely average. She did not belong to the popular clique. No one asked her for beauty tips in the lavatory. No boy had ever called her on the phone. And no one ever commented on her appearance, except for Bruce Rankin, who once said that Fanny Swann had a nose that could cut cheese.
Average. If you said it long enough, it sounded as bad as it felt. Average, average, average.
The one time Fanny mentioned her concern about her "averageness" to her father, he bristled.
"You are not average," Henry Swann stated, turning red. "It's your young, garbled vision clouding things. Hopefully, you'll outgrow it -- your garbled vision. Then you'll see how beautiful you really are."
Her mother was more sympathetic, but just as blind.
Who's the one with garbled vision? Fanny often asked herself.
While Ellen had tucked in a few uncooperative strands of hair, Fanny had slipped in front of her and faced the mirror square-on. She straightened her outfit. She was wearing black tights, a black turtleneck, black Converse All-Star high-tops, and an old, brown, stretched-out, V_ neck sweater of her father's, onto which she had randomly sewn dozens of buttons. The buttons were various sizes, shapes, and colors. I look like a clown, she thought. My mother is a goddess.
"Done!" Ellen had said, startling Fanny. She whirled about beneath the cool bathroom light like a dancer in a jewelry box.
Now they stood in the dining room, under the chandelier. Bright yellow balloons and green crepe-paper streamers hung down, moving slightly above their heads.
Ellen grabbed Fanny's hands and squeezed them tightly. Then she laced their fingers together. "I don't know when he'll be back. He didn't say. When he called, he just told me he wasn't coming to the party."
Fanny waited for her mother to say more. Things Fanny wanted to hear. Things like, "But I'm sure he'll be home soon," or "Surprise! It's just a joke -- he's hiding in the front hall closet," or even something as simple and meaningless as "Don't worry."
But she didn't. She swung her arms out, making a circle with Fanny. The balloons bobbled in the small wind, and Fanny could hear the tight rubbery sound they made.Protecting Marie. Copyright © by Kevin Henkes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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